Interview with Monica Ager Jacobsen, U.S. Department of State (Part 2)


This is the second part of an interview with Bev Meyers, Founder of Legal Writing Launch, and Monica Ager Jacobsen, Attorney Adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser, Office of Human Rights and Refugees, in the U.S. Department of State.  In this part of the interview, attorney Agers Jacobsen discusses the following areas:

  • Law Clerk Internship at the California Office of the Attorney General
  • Legal Writing Tips for Pre-Law Students, Law Students for Internships, and New Lawyers (Who Have Just Passed the Bar)
  • Importance of Grammar and IRAC in Legal Writing
  • Her Goals in Becoming a Lawyer

In the first part of the interview, attorney Ager Jacobsen addressed:

  • Current Position as Attorney Adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser, Office of Human Rights and Refugees, U.S. Department of State
  • Judicial Law Clerkship

Law Clerk Internship at the California Office of the Attorney General

BEV: Tell us a little bit about the [law clerk] internship when you worked at my office. I was your supervisor and I enjoyed that very much.

MONICA: It was wonderful. It was after my first summer at law school at Berkeley Law and I had previously worked for a congresswoman and knew that law school was a path to public interest work, I was hoping, on the government side. Really it was the first opportunity for me to practice law or to see what the practice of law looks like. I think that first summer is always a very eye-opening summer for law students. Law school itself is a lot of concepts that are often a little bit amorphous and so seeing the application of law and how one could practice law and how they’re applied is very eye opening and after studying and doing exams and things like that, really rewarding to realize, ‘Oh, this is what this is leading up to.’ That certainly was the experience for me and I adored working for you. In that position, there can be some variety about how much substantive work is given to interns and we were certainly trusted with real cases that were pending and had deadlines and, in a way, that felt like there was a real contribution.

I had my legal writing and research class and those questions are hypothetical and they’re made to be the most complex and the most challenging, that half the class can easily write one side and half the class can write the other and both make compelling arguments. It was interesting to learn that that’s not always the case in the real world. There were cases that we had where it wasn’t necessarily that they were hugely difficult or complex legal questions, but rather that we needed to put together clear, concise legal arguments drawing from the facts and the record that got us to a point where we could win, say, a motion for summary judgement or a motion to dismiss. Just seeing that in action and understanding how legal writing fits into that context was really fascinating for me.

BEV: As I recall, you actually drafted a motion for summary judgment for me. What kind of things did you learn in that process?

MONICA: It takes some time to figure out what to do with a record; what’s important in a record, what’s not, what the key documents are, what kind of quotes are going to be compelling.

BEV: When you say record, we’re not talking about a record of appeal, but if there had been depositions or some evidence that had already been developed, declarations, that type of thing.

MONICA: Absolutely. I walked in and you handed me a file and it was a big file and I considered that the record. Going through it, ‘What is this, what do they mean, what happened factually?’ If I recall, what I did and what I did with the judge quite a bit and what’s important, is first I identified the legal standard; had a good sense, both generally, in what a motion for summary judgment requires but then also how it might fit into these facts. And then combing through everything to pick out the pieces that might be relevant. Not necessarily that, certainly, but what could be compelling for this argument and trying to set it up in a way where those facts fit into the legal standard that you’re looking at in a motion for summary judgment. And then editing. My process is [placing] everything in and trying to whittle it all down; figuring out what’s superfluous in terms of arguments and also in terms of language.

Legal Writing Tips for Pre-Law Students, Law Students for Internships, and New Lawyers (Who Have Just Passed the Bar)

BEV: Would you have any suggestions for new lawyers in terms of legal writing? People just having passed the bar?

MONICA: I think there’s no better way to learn than on the job. If that internships, like the experience that I got working with you, if that’s in working in clinics, in any sort of context, having the experience where you’re actually exposed to the practice of law and have seen others who have honed their craft. Not just working on them, but sitting down and reading those briefs afterwards to see what made it in, digging in on the oppositions brief and understanding why they drafted those arguments, whether or not you think they did a good job writing . . ., but just having continued and extended exposure on that is incredibly helpful.

Having some guidance from people who know what they’re doing is always really helpful, and I certainly advocate for having folks share their legal writing as much as possible. Sometimes when you’re working in a particular job, people don’t have time and you don’t want to be a burden on folks. But I do think that having at least one set of eyes, if not two, three, four, and whatever you’re writing, really helps hone the arguments. You don’t have to take people’s advice necessarily; it might be that one person thinks you should frame an argument this way and another thinks you should frame it another way. But ultimately having those multiple sets of eyes helps to hone the skills you have on that.

BEV: How about students before they go to law school? Students taking law courses, pre-law, or just students the summer before they go to law school? Is there anything you would suggest for them?

MONICA: Legal writing isn’t that different than good, persuasive argumentative writing that is happening and advocacy that’s happening in other contexts. Practicing that skill, identifying and paying attention such that when you’re reading something that you find compelling, looking back over it, not just for the substance of it.  But also looking at newspaper articles and other pieces of writing, magazine pieces that you find persuasive, going back and looking at how they arranged that writing, how they arranged the arguments, trying to understand not just that the arguments are compelling but why you find them compelling in advance, is going to help you in terms of identifying those relevant arguments down the path.

Importance of Grammar and IRAC in Legal Writing

BEV: . . . Let’s just focus on the significance of grammar in legal writing and the significance of basic paragraph structure using IRAC or a version of IRAC.

MONICA: It’s critically important and I think grammar can be a really big distraction if things are off and you don’t want to undermine your argument with a loss of credibility from writing well in a technical sense. So that’s why grammar is one piece of it and again, with just having eyes on typos or missing words, misstatements, things that seem a little bit off when sometimes actually read aloud.  Sometimes I will read things aloud to just see how they flow but that can be a big distraction from the argument and I think that can be very negative. In terms of sentence and paragraph structure, it all goes back to what we keep hammering, which is you don’t want to bury the lead.

For legal writing in particular, having the argument upfront and then understanding that everything else below needs to connect to it in some way, whether it’s the facts that support the legal statement or whether or not it’s further legal analysis that stems from that topic sentence, everything that is connected in that paragraph. I think that that’s really a key way to think of things and then to the extent that those things do not fit together in that paragraph, figuring out why is this here, does it need to be here, does it go in a different paragraph, does it belong here at all? If it doesn’t fit within this argument, is it a compelling argument at all or is it a separate thought that I need to explore further elsewhere.

Her Goals in Becoming a Lawyer

BEV: Why did you go to law school in the first place, and do you feel like you’re fulfilling whatever your goal was in going to law school?

MONICA: I went to law school because I was interested in public service and making sure that I had a career and a job that felt like it had meaning to me and felt like I was doing something for the public good to better the world, in some way. But I also wanted to be challenged, I wanted to be interested and be working on compelling issues so I thought law offered me a series of opportunities to do them. It absolutely is the case; I feel very challenged by my work.  I feel very fulfilled by it. And, I think in terms of thinking about the world critically, but also recognizing that there is good in the world, there are tools that we can use to help achieve those goals. All of that has been brought to fruition where I’ve ended up at the State Department.

BEV: Thank you very much, Monica, for being with us today and I look forward to connecting with you soon.

MONICA: Thank you.

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